Nathalie Tocci holds the position of director at the Istituto Affari Internazionali and is also a part-time professor at the European University Institute. Her most recent publication, titled “A Green and Global Europe,” has been released by Polity.
All significant foreign policy speeches and documents in Europe have emphasized the critical role of multilateralism and the rules-based order. This sentiment continues to be prevalent, with multilateralism being the automatic response to any discussion of Europe’s global position.
However, in reality, Europe is not taking significant action to prevent the devastating collapse of global governance.
During different moments in its past, Europe has been a strong advocate for multilateralism. This was especially evident during the recent Republican governments in the United States, where the country chose to ignore international rules, systems, and groups in favor of acting on its own.
During the initial term of former U.S. President George W. Bush, European leaders publicly expressed their support for the United Nations and international law, particularly in regards to the Iraq War. Many may remember French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin’s impassioned defense of the UN as a “temple” and “guardian” of “conscience” and “an ideal.” As Donald Trump disregarded the Paris climate agreement, the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Health Organization, and other international agreements during his time in the White House, German Chancellor Angela Merkel emerged as a prominent advocate for a rules-based free world.
When Joe Biden became the President of the United States in 2020, there was a sincere belief that there would be a resurgence of multilateralism, starting with the G7 and expanding to the G20 and other international organizations. Tangible progress was made, including agreements at the U.N. Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow and the implementation of a global minimum tax rate for multinational companies, which was approved by the G7, G20, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Despite efforts to address global issues, such as the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the competition between the U.S. and China, and growing tensions between the global south and north, these actions have only worsened the divide. The recent COP27 meeting in Sharm-el-Sheikh did not make significant progress on climate change and the upcoming COP28 in Dubai is expected to further decrease global efforts. Meanwhile, the destructive impacts of climate change continue to wreak havoc worldwide, leading to a shift in strategies as some groups turn to doomsday scenarios in hopes of promoting immediate action since denying the issue is no longer effective.
Despite the ongoing shift towards green energy, the push for it is ironically driven by the bipolar competition between the U.S. and China rather than through collaborative efforts. The EU’s once proud role in global climate diplomacy is now experiencing visible setbacks.
After facing years of obstruction, the WTO has quietly faded away. The concept of state capitalism in China was always difficult to fully embrace, but it was Washington, first under Trump and then Biden, that ultimately led to the downfall of free trade. Even the EU, once a strong advocate for free trade, is now struggling to adapt its principles and alter its fundamental beliefs.
European leaders are acknowledging that economic security is now prioritized over free trade, as seen in their recent agreements with Chile, New Zealand, and Kenya. This approach is referred to as “de-risking” rather than “decoupling,” “open strategic autonomy” instead of autarky, and protection rather than protectionism. Regardless of the terminology used, this European strategy resembles America’s “small yard and high fence” policy, ultimately leading to a decrease in free trade.
The situation at the United Nations is extremely concerning. The Security Council has been unable to make significant progress due to frequent disagreements, with rare instances of agreement in the 1990s and 2000s. However, the divide between the Western countries and Russia, as well as the tensions between the United States and China, have now reached a critical point where it seems impossible to repair, hindering any important decisions.
A few weeks ago, the U.N. General Assembly was a disappointing sight as only a handful of global leaders, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, attended the event to be met with largely vacant rooms. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron chose to not attend the annual gathering at all.
However, regional groups are not experiencing any significant improvements either. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe is facing potential failure due to Russia’s interference in approving the organization’s budget. Additionally, global organizations such as the G20, which were supposed to represent a multipolar world, are unable to inspire collective efforts.
Despite the challenges presented by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, both Indonesia and India, as G20 presidents in consecutive years, were able to achieve a leaders’ declaration. Additionally, India successfully brought the African Union into the group and utilized the absence of Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping to launch a spice route connecting India, the Middle East, and Europe in response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. However, there has been limited progress within the G20 as a whole, particularly in addressing economic and climate issues that are intertwined with political and strategic concerns.
The only groups that are successful are the ones that acknowledge, rather than override, current global divisions, such as the G7-plus and the BRICS-plus.
In the past, there was a discussion about whether having multiple world powers would enhance or diminish the effectiveness of multilateral cooperation. However, it has become evident that it has ultimately destroyed it. The European region is not powerful enough to rescue multilateralism as the world becomes more divided. Unfortunately, the reality is that Europe is not putting in any effort to save it.
The EU is currently focusing on smaller groupings like the G7 and creating alternative Pan-European groups such as the European Political Community, while also considering expanding its membership. However, it has been less involved in larger, multilateral organizations that cross geopolitical boundaries. While it is understandable for Europe to refrain from engaging with Russia during a time of war, it is essential to establish a new security structure that is not centered around Russia, but rather aimed at protecting ourselves from potential threats.
However, the issue is that Europe is not effectively communicating with nations that do not fully conform to its desires. Although the EU genuinely supports the idea of reaching out to countries in the developing world, their attempts have been lackluster. Diplomatically, there has not been a consistent and organized effort to understand the grievances and necessities of these nations.
European countries were vocal in their criticism of Bush’s ultimatum of being “with us or against us.” However, they now face discomfort with countries that remain neutral. This is evident in matters of security, where the bloc is struggling to determine a course of action in response to turmoil in the Sahel and pushback against European and French policies. The same can be seen in the Middle East, where not only Israel was taken by surprise by a sudden resurgence of violence, but also both the East and Europe had gradually reduced their involvement in the region. On the economic front, the Global Gateway, which pledged €300 billion and is now connected to the EU-Middle East-India project, has yet to produce tangible results despite being announced two years ago.
In the past five years, Europe has prioritized the Green Deal in its domestic efforts. However, the continent is lacking in terms of providing financial support for mitigation and adaptation in Africa.
The U.N.-centered rules-based international order cannot be saved by Europe alone. However, Europe has the opportunity and responsibility to do more to support multilateralism and international cooperation with countries in the global south, ultimately benefiting itself in the process.